Panel Urges FDA To Regulate Salt In Food

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The Institute of Medicine issued a report Tuesday on reducing salt intake. They are recommending that Americans reduce their salt intake significantly, and that the FDA take the lead in leveling the playing field for food processors so that salt content can be systematically reduced over a period of years.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

There is just too much salt in the American diet, and food makers should be forced to cut back. That is the conclusion of a panel of experts convened by the prestigious Institute of Medicine. The committee's report says voluntary efforts by food makers have failed to make much of a dent in sodium levels found in processed food and they're calling on the Food and Drug Administration to take action.

NPR's Patti Neighmond has more.

PATTI NEIGHMOND: The report says there's been an explosion in the amount of salt in the American diet over the past 40 years. The average American consumes a teaspoon and a half of salt a day, says the report. That's double what they need, according to economist Mary Muth, who's on the panel.

Dr. MARY MUTH (Panel Member, Institute of Medicine): A lot of the salt is in mixed dishes, things like pizza and cheeseburgers, things that probably you would anticipate have high levels of sodium. But there are other foods people really don't even think about like breads and cereals.

NEIGHMOND: And salad dressings, cheese, condiments like mustard, relish and soy sauce, cookies and cakes, and even chicken, which salt is added to for flavor. These are all sort of hidden salts, says Muth.

Dr. MUTH: And we do know that over time, people are consuming more and more processed foods. They're consuming more and more foods from restaurants. Consumers have very little control over the amount of sodium that are in those foods. And as a consequence, they're consuming much higher levels than are recommended.

NEIGHMOND: Muth says individual food companies don't want to be the first ones to voluntarily lower their salt content. That might put them at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to taste. And that's why the Institute of Medicine report says the federal government should regulate the amount of salt all companies can add to their food. The Food and Drug Administration would be the agency to do that.

FDA spokesperson Meghan Scott says nothing at this point is off the table.

Ms. MEGHAN SCOTT (Spokesperson, Food and Drug Administration): We have not reached a decision to regulate sodium levels. But certainly with something that is as big a public health issue as sodium and high blood pressure, we plan to use any and all tools available.

NEIGHMOND: The institute's report says high blood pressure can begin to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease even in childhood. And once people reach their 50s, the risk of developing high blood pressure over the remainder of their lifespan is estimated to be 90 percent. And that's why there needs to be an across-the-board reduction, says Mary Muth.

Dr. MUTH: There have been some estimates that about 100,000 deaths per year are due to hypertension due to high sodium intake.

NEIGHMOND: And when you weigh those costs in health and dollars against the costs faced by food companies to reduce salt in their food, there's no question, says Muth, reducing salt is health-wise and cost-effective.

The leading representative of the processed food industry, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, issued a statement today saying sodium is an important ingredient which enhances flavor and preserves food, but that they're willing to work with federal agencies to reduce overall salt consumption.

Patti Neighmond, NPR News.

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